Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden

Bowden GuestsGuests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam

2006. Atlantic Monthly Press. Hardcover. 680 pages.

Backstory: After seeing the movie Argo back in October of last year, I decided I wanted to read more about the Iran hostage crisis. I’d had Bowden’s book on my to-read list for a few years. I knew very little about this moment in history. I was born in the early 80’s, and it was never taught in school. The crisis would sometimes be referenced in news discussions, but not really explained in any detail. So, for those who may be unfamiliar, on November 4th, 1979, a student group called the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and took its staff and security personnel hostage. They demanded the return of the ousted shah to be returned to Iran and tried there for his crimes against the Iranian people. (The shah had been allowed to enter the States for medical treatment.) This initial take-over stretched into a drawn-out affair, with 52 hostages kept captive for 444 days until the final negotiated release in January 20, 1981.


Bowden has written several other well-known books of history such as Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo. In this book, he has put together a thorough account which covers the experiences of the hostages, the motivations of their captors, the intense media coverage, and the actions of the Carter administration and the U.S. military.

Although it took me a long time to read this book, every time I picked it up, I was engrossed. I was most fascinated by the ordeals of the hostages. Especially in the early days, they were usually tied up and blindfolded. They were not allowed to talk to each other. Eventually, some of these restrictions were relaxed, but even then, they were usually kept in dark, dank places. All of them lost weight, some were beaten, a couple tried to escape, at least one tried to kill himself, and at one point, a large group of them were lined up against a wall and told they would be shot. I found myself wondering what I would do in their situation.

For those who have seen Argo and are curious: the six embassy staff members who hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house are mentioned briefly when they make their escape, and also later when news of their rescue reaches the hostages. (The hostages received mail, but it was screened first by their guards. Major news events were occasionally discovered by a hostage through such means as an American fourth grader’s letter.)

My overall impression of the situation was how impossible of a situation it was for U.S. response. Iran’s government was in shambles, which made it difficult to know who was in charge, who had the authority to end this crisis in Tehran. Due to the geographic location of Tehran, a rescue mission was considered an action of last resort, with little room for error. Bowden’s portrayal of the Carter administration is overall a sympathetic one, at least in how it handled the crisis once it happened. Certainly, the President’s short-sightedness concerning the admission of the shah into the United States was a major instigating factor of the crisis.

The epilogue is interesting in that Bowden traveled to Tehran and interviewed some of the former hostage-takers, and took a tour of the small museum of sorts that is set up in the former embassy.

I definitely recommend this book. Bowden’s research shows through in its inclusion of detail, but the details never felt too heavy. Rather, they served to color in the personality of the people involved as well as the tenor of the situation as it progressed.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Bridget in Arabia – “All of these elements – the hostages’ experiences, the rescue attempt, and the story of the individuals – are woven together to create a literary whole that is at once informative, compelling, and illuminating.”

Happy Antipodean – “With such a large number of players in this 637-page tome, it is not surprising that you lose track of the majority . . . only a few are well-delineated enough to evoke recognition in the reader each time the author returns to their story. This is a shortcoming, but it is not fatal.”

Musings of a Bookish Kitty – “Even knowing how the situation played out, I was still caught in the suspense of the moment as I read.”



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4 responses to “Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden

  1. Jason

    Glad you liked it! I’m not surprised they never taught about this in school — we were lucky to make it through the end of WWII by the end of our school year! I didn’t realize Bowden traveled to Tehran for research — he hits all the world’s hotspots.

  2. Sounds like a good read!

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